Thursday, February 27, 2014

Luis Buñuel | Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones)

by Douglas Messerli

Luis Alcoriz and Luis Buñuel (writers, with dialogue by Max Aub, Juan Larrea and Pedro de Urdimalas), Luis Buñuel (director) Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones / The Young and the Damned) / 1950, USA 1952

Luis Buñuel’s powerful 1950 Mexican film, Los olviadados, is a study of betrayals—betrayals by family members, street friends, neighbors and, most importantly, of society itself. The young boys at the center of Buñuel’s work have hardly any chance to survive, being prisoners of their economic and sociological conditions. The marvel of this film, however, is not simply its political and sociological statements, but the way in which it helps us to comprehend each of these often unsympathetic characters’ behavior. Each act seemingly out of selfish necessity, but we come to recognize those behavioral needs, and comprehend how their obsessions arise from their simple attempts to survive in a society that seemingly does not want them to.
      For me, the central figure is a basically “good” boy, Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), who is not only hanging out, as his mother vehemently states, with the wrong crowd, but has no other figures in his life, including his child-like mother, who might give him a sense of worth. Pedro’s mother (Stella Inda), a hard-working maid, earning little money to support her four children, is herself furious with the world which has cast her out at the early age of 14, when she became pregnant with Pedro. She is ill and has few alternatives. But in that fury she has also neglected the son who she is determined is incorrigible. In fact, Pedro is a loving boy, who, in turn, loves all animals (although he destroys several in retribution for his own treatment throughout the film). He literally has nowhere else to go but to fend for himself on the streets, at least finding a certain degree of respect with his street companions, particularly with the true villain of the tale, Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), who at the beginning of the story has just escaped from a reform institution.
      Even the violent ruffian and thief Jaibo, however, in Buñuel’s telling, must be contextualized within the facts that he has never known his mother or father, issues which he uses to gain sympathy from Pedro’s mother as he attempts a sexual relationship with her. Nonetheless, we can feel little sympathy for him, despite his somewhat charismatic demeanor and appearance, when, immediately after his escape, he galvanizes his former street friends (children who seem far younger than he) to rob and later beat an elderly blind street musician and soon after, to kill a former colleague whom he believes has betrayed him, Julian (Javier Amézcua)—a man/boy who has left the streets to work in support of his drunken father and suffering mother—by hitting him in the head with a stone and beating him with a club. The murder sweeps up the young Pedro into a world from which he can never escape, as Pedro perceives subconsciously from the beginning, presented in a surrealist-like dream he has the next night, where the dead Julien appears beneath his bed while his normally hostile mother arises to embrace him. The fact is his mother not only does embrace or even love him, but denies him the paltry food which she might offer. Pedro is cornered in a world where he is made guilty simply through his existence.
    The complexities of this are the subject of the film, Pedro's true innocence being displayed by his adoption of another young boy, “Little Eyes (Mário Ramírez), whose father has abandoned him on the street. “Little Eyes,” in turn, is taken in and abused by the blind man (Miguel Inclán), while others of this street saga are interwoven into the tragic events, which include betrayals of love, sex, and even well-meaning social institutions, such as the rural school to where Pedro is finally sent.
     In the end, the faithful Pedro is even forced to squeal on his “friend” Jaibo in order to maintain his innocence of several crimes, but it does no good. Each betrayal only leads to another, until finally everyone involved is, in some respects, betrayed. The beautiful young girl Meche—sexually attacked both by Jaibo and the blind man (who we discover is a pedophile)—must, in the end, even betray her affection for Pedro by helping her father dispose of his body when they discover that Jaibo has killed him.  Jaibo, reported to the police by the blind man, is shot to death. “Little Eyes,” already abused as a child laborer by the blind man and the purveyors of a local carnival, is now forced to the street as well, where we know his future will probably parallel Pedro’s. The last image of this painful documentary-like, neo-realist work, shows Pedro’s body being tossed by Meche and her father down a cliff into a garbage dump, a scenario that can only remind me of the end of another Mexican-centered masterwork, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.
      This early work about a kind of gang warfare makes the American musical West Side Story seem like a church-sponsored morality play. For Buñuel, as he made clear in his voice-over prologue, there are no answers: only the future society can determine what to do about the street-side criminal world he portrays. The American musical, at heart, represents a world of hope, of desire and possibility, despite its tragic ending. These urban waifs are destroyed without love, without hope, without a voice. Is it any wonder that the Mexican society, which it was portrayed, was outraged, demanding even the director’s ouster as a citizen of that country. The tragedy is that these same destroyed and forgotten children live still today in many of our major cities: I’ve seen them in São Paulo, Los Angeles, New York, Moscow, Naples, even Paris. That Buñuel’s film seems fresh 64 years after its making is a frightening thing to report.

Los Angeles, February 27, 2014

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky | Шахматная горячка (Shakhmatnaya goryachka) (Chess Fever)

a danger to family life
by Douglas Messerli

Nikolai Shpikovsky (writer), Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky (director) Шахматная горячка (Shakhmatnaya goryachka) (Chess Fever) / 1925

Playing a kind of Soviet Harold Lloyd-like character, Vladimir Fogel is a chess-obsessed man about to get married. Even the morning when he is to meet his future wife at the “registry” finds him busy playing chess with himself, comically rushing from one side of the table to the other. A note tied to his arm reminds him that he must leave for the marriage license, but he simply cannot resist moving the chess figures a few more times and reading from one of the numerous books on chess that his pockets contain—along with his many kittens.
       Once on the streets he passes a chess shop and, like a piece of metal to a magnet, is lured back in space and time. Every checkerboard pattern in the world draws him into another game.

      Meanwhile, his poor would-be wife (Anna Zemtsova) is pouring out her heart to another friend, who warns her that chess ”is a danger to family life.” When the man finally reaches his lover, she attempts to spurn him in outrage, while he pleads for forgiveness; but another pattern upon the floor merely leads him to begin another game, and finally she rejects his pleas, gathering up some of the numerous chess manuals in his pockets and throwing them out the window.
       Each of these fall of the hands unsuspecting passers-by who are equally taken up with the game, as obsessed, apparently, as our hero! It is as if everyone except the girl is a chess addict. So isolated from the world around her, the woman determines to poison herself, while the hero declares he will drown himself.

      On the way to the pharmacy to purchase her poison, the girl meets a sophisticated and dapper man, who displays his admiration, and she joins him in his limousine, clearly determined to find a new life and lover. The irony—what we know from the very beginning of this short film—is that her new “lover” is none other than the real-life chess world champion, José Raúl Capablanca.
        Meanwhile, the sullen hero also fails in his attempt to commit suicide, and returning to the streets encounters a poster announcing a new chess event in which anyone who registers may participate. He runs to the venue to list his name, where he encounters his former lover, now utterly enchanted with the complexity and beauty of the “game,” as she watches with fascination Capablanca facing off with a foe. The two—our hero and his girl—reunite, she now perfectly ready to share his passion.
       Shot in the middle of Pudovkin’s filming of his Mechanics of the Brain, Chess Fever was born out the 1925 Moscow chess tournament. Receiving permission to make a documentary of the event, Pudovkin and Shpikovsky filmed footage of the tournament, pretending to make the documentary, but later reinserting it into their comic tale, a kind of dissident act which Pudovkin would seldom take again in his long involvement with Stalinist film-making. And one is saddened seeing this and others of his early films for his later more overtly propagandist works, making us realize what a potentially innovative and original filmmaker we lost.

Los Angeles, February 23, 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Aleksandr Dovzhenko | Земля (Russian, Zemlya) (Earth)

abstraction and individuation
by Douglas Messerli

Aleksandr Dovzhenko (writer and director) Земля (Russian, Zemlya) (Earth) / 1930
Dovzhenko’s great film of 1930 was intended to be a kind of Russian propagandist film encouraging Ukranian kulak (individual and often rich farmers) to join with one another in establishing state collectives, and the kernel of the tale of kulak unrest and the murder of a young member of the komsomol, Vasyl (Basil) (the beautiful Semyon Svashenko) remains at the core of Dovzhenko’s movie. And the film, in outline, presents its political “plot.”
     Despite the opposition of Vasyl’s father, Semyon (Nikolai Nademsky) and his uncle Opanas (Stepan Shkurat) are opposed to it, as are their neighbors, Arkhip Bilokin (Ivan Franko) and his son Khoma (Thomas) (Pyotr Masokha), preferring to work the rich land and its harvests in the old manner of oxen and plow.
      To prove them wrong, Vasyl and his compatriots arrange to have a tractor sent, and proudly drive it through their small village, with crowds arriving to gape at the new wonder. When suddenly the tractor stops, the driver discovers that the radiator is dry. With no water in sight, the komsomol members are stymied until the driver suggests that the men piss into the radiator, and the tractor moves forward again.
     The following montage shows Vasyl busily harvesting the wheat, demonstrating the entire process of gathering the grain to the production of bread. But in the process he also destroys the fences belong to the Bilokins. That night, as Vasyl joyfully dances home, he is killed by Khoma.
      Distraught by the death of his son, Semyon orders the priest off his land, and asks Vasyl’s friends to bury him instead, in a new manner with contemporary songs, since his son believed so strongly in the future. They agree to do so, and the entire village joins them in a joyous celebration of Vasyl, Khoma going mad in the process and admitting his guilt.
     Vasyl’s glory will fly around the world, argues one friend, just as does the new Soviet airplane. So ends the “propagandist” aspects of Dovzhenko’s tale.
     Had the director simply presented this in simple terms, the authorities might have been pleased, but history would never have bothered about this masterwork, often rated today as one of the most important works of film history. It is almost as if, mesmerized by his homeland’s landscape, families, products, and cultural perspectives, Dovzhenko could not resist celebrating them in a manner that renders his film’s political intentions nearly mute. Soviet critics of the day certainly seemed to miss the basic story, describing the film as “ideologically vicious.”
     The film begins with vast waving fields of grains, lingering camera shots of apples and pears, and the death of a family elder, who just before dying, sits up to eat his last pear. Family individuals are shot separately as in 19th century portraits, usually with camera looking up and directly into their worn and drawn faces, or, in the case of the handsome Vasyl, portraying him in silhouette, looking off into the distance, obviously symbolic of the direction he would take his family and friends. *
     In the long scene in which we see Vasyl harvesting the wheat, Dovzhenko turns his basically realist tale into a series of abstract images, as the wheat and its chaff go hurtling endlessly through space, with Ukrainian maidens gathering the bundles by tying them together in braids of grain. Huge mixing containers beat up the dough before it is molded into the form of loaves and placed into gigantic ovens. We see thousands of loaves of bread being spewed out of the ovens into space. In short, the individuation of the first scenes is utterly transformed into collective abstraction, reiterating the theme, but also transforming this film from a simple realist tale into a wondrous cinematic spectacle of the abstract akin to the paintings of Russian artists such as Kasimir Malevich.

     The hopak that Vasyl dances on his way home that evening is not simply a peasant dance, but a performance of graceful beauty that also suggests a kind of “dance of death,” as the director focuses on his white-bloused figure against the blackness of night, a figure who quite literally stirs up the dust of earth in his intricate footsteps, whirling like a dervish into destruction. He has, after all, dared to threaten in his very devotion to idealism, the ancient way of Ukrainian life. And although he is certainly a hero, he is also a fool in his impulsive rush into the future.
    His celebratory funeral is interspersed with a fantastic triptych: the local priest calling down god’s wrath upon the now atheist community, an anguished naked pledge of love by Vasyl’s girlfriend, and the increasingly mad run of Khoma, attempting to speed away from both the masses and himself, a rush that ends in the graveyard, where he too dances out a kind invocation to death and screams out his guilt to the world, with no one there to hear him. Dovzhenko portrays him in his silent film as one of the most lonely beings on the planet, a man who cannot even find someone to whom he can confess.
      Once more the earth is stirred up into dust, while Vasyl’s mother bears another baby.
     In the final scene the rains gather, pouring down upon the rich landscape, dripping seemingly endlessly across the surfaces of pears, apples, melons and other fruits, which in the director’s hands become another kind of abstract representation of nature. And, in the end, Dovzhenko’s film seems more concerned with the cycles of nature and human life and death than the political fable at its core. Daily life matters in Earth far more than the political fissures and bonds of social structures. The individual and their eccentricities seem of far greater worth than the abstractions of a collective living. If nothing else, Dovzhenko gives them equal value in his idyllic testament to the Ukrainian way of life.
       By coincidence (my old friend) Network sent me this film on the very days when the modern Ukraine was rebelling against their President’s attempt to realign their country with the Russia. You certainly do perceive in The Earth the importance of the Ukraine to the former Soviet Union. It seems almost eerie to realize that most of the work was filmed in and near Kiev, where just yesterday fires were blazing in protest of the alignment which Dovzhenko’s kulaks also fought.      
*In Earth’s continual series of friezes, we can perceive the film’s later influence on other Soviet filmmakers, including the Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov.

Los Angeles, February 21, 2014
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (February 2014).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Luis Buñuel | Simon del Desierto (Simon of the Desert)

a monument

by Douglas Messerli

Gustavo Alatriste (screenplay, based on a novel by Luis Buñuel), Luis Buñuel (director) Símon del Desierto (Simon of the Desert) / 1965


The first action of Buñuel’s short fable Simon of the Desert is a decent, as Símon (Claudio Brook)—like the Syrian saint, Símon Stylites before him—comes down from a desert pillar where, feeling in need of spiritual purification, he has stood for six years, six months, and six days. Greeted by nearby townspeople and monks, they gather round the saintly martyr to grab fragments of his filthy garment and beg him to bless them. The local head of the monastery attempts to anoint Símon into the priesthood, but the hirsute saint refuses it, arguing that he is not yet worthy.

       A wealthy landowner has built another, taller pillar nearby, to the top of which Símon now climbs in search of further purification. When he has returned to the top, a man whose two hands have been amputated, begs him to perform a miracle. Símon prays, and the man’s hands are restored, but his first action is to push his child from him. So the director notes the irony of Símon’s gifts. While he may be a kind of saint, he is also shunned by most of the locals as, one by one the monk rails against them for their human sins. A dwarf goat-herder is attacked by Símon for loving his goat; a handsome young monk who brings Símon food, is attacked by the elderly martyr for being too vain, and orders him to not return to the monastery until he grows a beard. Símon rejects even the pleas of his own mother to be able to live near to him.

      In short, if Símon is perceived as a saintly sufferer, he also rejected as a proud bigot, a man who himself recognizes his vanity in wishing to bless the people below. The man in the ridiculous position atop the pillar has become a kind of monument, a testament, perhaps, to his own sense of superiority and holiness.

Under the sign of the devil (666) is it any wonder, accordingly, that Satan soon arrives in the form, first, of a lovely girl (Silvia Pinal), flirtatiously trying to lure Símon to come down and play with her. Símon, however, recognizes her as Satan. Satan returns, this time with a ridiculous beard and curled hair, pretending to be Christ, but again the saint, after a few minutes, recognizes the tempter to be Satan.

       Possessing one of the priests who come to visit him—a priest who has secretly filled Símon’s food bag with cheese and other delicacies—Satan again makes an attempt to denounce Símon. Recognizing his deceit, Símon prays, exorcising the priest of the devil on the spot.

      Finally, in a third appearance as a coffin trails across the desert sand to stop by the pillar, opening to reveal Satan once more, this time in a toga. Climbing to the top, Satan promises to end Símon’s vigil, as suddenly the couple vanish.

       The next scene shows a shorn Símon (looking somewhat like a beatnik) next to a woman in a New York City nightclub of the 1960s, where a crowd of young dancers enthusiastically rock to the beat of a band playing Radioactive Flesh. Símon begs to leave, but Satan tells him he is damned to stay forever.

       The mix of the serious religiosity of Buñuel’s story and the humor it elicits makes it clear that for all the “saint’s” suffering, he gains nothing, no vision nor loss of pride—Simon’s major sin. Satan captures him simply because Símon has become someone apart and above the people, a kind of Pharisee who demonstrates his penance so extremely, that he can no longer be embraced by those who might have loved him. And accordingly, in this wonderful short, Buñuel has turned his “life of a saint” into a warning of dangers of human nature.  


Los Angeles, February 18, 2014

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Paul Wegener and Carl Boese | Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, or How He Came Into the World)

the word
by Douglas Messerli

Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen (screenplay, based on a novel by Gustav Meyrink), Paul Wegener and Carl Boese (directors) Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, or How He Came Into the World / 1920

Paul Wegener’s third Golem film—the 1915 version, The Golem, and the 1917 The Golem and the Dancing Girl both lost—is a film of contradictions and oppositions, beginning with Rabbi Löw (Alan Steinruck), who, although he is a noted Rabbi, wisely able to advise the Prague Jewish Ghetto of the 16th century, is also a Cabbalist, working with magical and Devilish powers slightly beyond his control, powers which even he keeps secret from the community and family. And even though the Holy Roman Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr) is about to order a closing and diaspora of the city’s Jews, he himself has worked with Luhois on creating the Emperor’s horoscope. In order to protect the established community which the Prague Jews have been able to create, Löw himself convenes with the demon Astaroth, and later, in a display of noted Jewish Patriachs summons a performance from “the Wandering Jew,” Ahasuerus, which merely reiterates the condition with Luhois would place the Jewish community once again.
       Despite his attempts to protect his community, the Rabbi creates a monster in his clay figure, calling the figure’s existence into being through the magic of the word, the “shem”—in this case the magic word “Aemaet,” the Hebrew word for the “truth.” But even “truth” in this film is a two edged sword, for the truth is that Frankenstein-like creature, The Golem, can be used for good or evil. Although Rabbi Löw attempts to use the “monster” for good by slightly threatening the Emperor and his court, the Golem returns home with more threatening personality, which the Rabbi’s cabbalist texts reveal may soon become dangerous.
       Even the bearer of the Emperor’s decrees, his gap-toothed knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), represents an amazing duality: on one hand he is a dazzlingly empty and effimanaate lackey, pleased that he has even received the attentions of the Emperor, but he also falls, somewhat inexplicably in love with the Rabbi’s dark-haired daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), who herself is an would-be obedient child, at first in love with the Rabbi’s assistant, Famulus (Ernst Deutsch), but is quite quickly taken with Florian, and, secretly disobeying her father, meets with the love-stricken knight.

      Although Famulus is also an utterly obedient assistant to the Rabbi, he also turns traitorous when he discovers that his would-be lover, Miriam and Florian have spent the night together, suddenly reanimating the monster, from whom the Rabbi has removed the magic amulet which gives him life, but placing the “word,” the monster’s animating name to the Golem’s chest in order to command him to destroy Florian.
      In short, each of this film’s characters, in their duopolistic behaviors helps to destroy the very community in which they live and hope to protect. The very powers which each of them possess—magic, knowledge, sexual allure, and Godliness—are abused in order to protect their society and themselves, and in that sense, they all unknowingly work against their own values, using their traditions to help undo the very things that they believe to be positive.
      The Golem, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is, by itself, an innocent force gone mad, a product of mankind’s own failings, a reverse-Christ who comes into being not to redeem mankind but to reiterate its fall from grace.
       The saviors of Wegener’s fable can never be the knowing, the adults of this world, even its would be wise men, the several patriarchs called together in beautiful ceremonial gatherings again and again in this film, but the innocents, the children whom at film’s end gather round and run from the Golem. The young girl who remains, so unknowing that she does not even understand that she should be horror and run, seems, as in Frankenstein, to momentarily enchant the monster, who picks her up into a possible hug of joy or death—we can never know what it might have meant. Simple curiosity and wonderment leads her to grab the amulet from his chest, rendering the Golem incapable of further action, returning him to a thing of clay, a being no longer with a name that might animate him. The child (Loni Nest), in her simple speechless act, has rendered “the word” meaningless, saving the world which the adults has so terribly transgressed.  In this Jewish fable, the savior becomes the continuation the species rather than a godly intercession into human life.
        That this profoundly perceived work about Jewish survival was directed by Paul Wegener, who later, critics report, collaborated with Nazi supporters is yet another of the films remarkable contradictions. The filming of The Golem, with its German Expressionist flourishes, represents a high moment in German cinema to which it could never return.

Los Angeles, February 16. 2014